Remember when summer blockbusters used to be fun? When Arnold Schwarzenegger absurdly swaggered through explosions in his shades and leather jacket? When Michael J. Fox implausibly spun through time in his souped-up Delorean? When Michael Keaton’s Batman actually spoke like he came out of a comic book rather than a Dostoevsky novel? Whatever happened to such irreverent, charismatic figures and the movies that brought them to momentary, flickering life? This year we were subjected to one bloated action film after another, all of which treated their subject matter, however ridiculous—whether zombie apocalypse, giant robots defending the earth against inter-dimensional monsters, or a post-apocalyptic world exploited and abandoned by the super-rich—with the kind of ponderous gravitas usually accorded to European art films. Who can save our popcorn fare from this inflated sense of self-importance? Forget Wolverine, Iron Man, and Thor: this is a job for Sharknado!
In early July, when the heat wave was hitting its peak in many parts of the country, and even the air-conditioned Cineplex failed to provide an escape from the enervating fug of 2013, the Syfy network broke a years-long record of consistently bad entertainment with a deliciously absurd ninety-minute escapade with the most irresistible title in recent memory. While the network has tried several times to present campy, so-bad-they’re-good B-movies for a contemporary mass audience (Dinocroc, Sharktopus, Frankenfish), none of them has managed to find that essential balance between naïve earnestness and shameless exploitation that made those grindhouse classics of the 70s so bloody wonderful. As Nigel Tuffnel said, there’s such a fine line between stupid and clever. But somehow Sharknado happened to find this line and balance on it, precariously and hilariously. After airing to luke-warm ratings on July 11, the movie sparked off a flurry of Twitter activity, generating smirking but admiring tweets from such surprising celebrities as Mia Farrow, Wil Wheaton, and Corey Monteith (some of the last he posted before passing away). Syfy aired it twice more in July, nearly doubling the number of viewers of its original airing each time, and produced a limited theatrical release, which sold out seats in the select cities where it showed. Other than a great title, what could make such an inauspicious production into such a phenomenon?
First of all, it’s actually really funny, but not only in the ways one might expect. Sharknado offers horror-comedy lovers a grand guignol of gore as herds of sharks are summarily blown up, gunned down, stabbed with pool cues, hit with bar stools, and chain-sawed from the inside out. This should come as no surprise, even if it is fun to see how they’re going to top themselves in violent absurdity. What did surprise me is that I actually started to care about these ridiculous stock characters, just a tiny bit. Not enough that I’d give up my place in the check out line to one of them if they had only a few groceries and I had a full cart, but, if I found myself stuck next to one of them on an airplane, I might actually listen to that person with more than mere politeness. This is how the story gets us to let our guard down long enough to get taken in by the punch-lines. In an absurd reprise of Quint’s speech in Jaws, as he recounts the disaster of the S.S. Indianapolis, waitress Nova tells young pilot Matt Shepherd about how she got the scar on her leg, a mystery apparently too painful to reveal to the other characters who’d asked about it. During a childhood fishing expedition that ended in disaster, she says, “Six people went into the water, and one little girl came out. They took my grandfather. That’s why I hate sharks.” Though this last line has been often quoted and Tweeted, my favorite comes after, when Matt eagerly says: “Now I really hate sharks too!”
Beyond these obviously appealing qualities, however, Sharknado has somehow managed to capture the mood of the moment by presenting us with a disaster we don’t really have to care about. In a summer of unprecedented heat, and the by-now-anticipated escalating number of wildfires, droughts, and floods, as we anticipate what is expected to be a horrendous hurricane season, the new normal has become just that, and talking about the climatic apocalypse has become about as boring as, well, talking about the weather. In his big speech on climate change, President Obama made the rather banal observation that “all weather events are affected by it—more extreme droughts, floods, wildfires and hurricanes,” adding that “the question is not whether we need to act. The question is whether we will have the courage to act before it's too late.” The president in The Day After Tomorrow said the same thing about a decade ago. And even such an inauspicious B-movie as Soylent Green offered a more urgent warning about climate change, and that was forty years ago! I’m not saying it’s too late to act, but it’s certainly too late to raise the question of whether we will have the courage to act. Thankfully, Sharknado dispenses with such platitudes by presenting us with a world surprisingly like our own, one in which absurdly bad things happen, a lot of guns are fired, and beautiful people find true love and hug.
This isn’t to say that Sharknado is cynical, certainly not as cynical as, say, Elysium, a film that presents a stark vision of a ruined world abandoned to the 99% only to conclude by suggesting we could right the world’s wrongs with better health care for everyone. Sharknado doesn’t pretend to offer solutions, but it does manage to capture, or at least reflect, the weirdness and stupidity of the new millennium better than anything else I’ve seen this summer. Some of the most effective scenes are those set in Beverly Hills, where we see torrents of water flooding into wealthy homes and inundating the manicured landscapes of the affluent. Adding shark fins to such familiar disaster scenarios seems less gratuitousness than commentary. And while it’s glorious, gory fun watching the heroes and heroines of the film blow away these sharks with their arsenals, Sharknado never demeans its viewers by implying that natural disasters can be overcome with “courage.” The news commentators reporting on the hurricane and waterspouts threatening California don’t hesitate to state clearly that this extreme weather is a direct result of global warming, showing a responsibility in reporting that may be the film’s most implausible element.
And for the record, Sharknado does take the time to address an issue that has otherwise been given little attention in the mainstream media. The opening scene depicts an unscrupulous dealer in shark fins selling his wares to an Asian buyer to use in shark fin soup. As the camera surveys heaps of dead sharks on the deck of the ship where the deal is taking place, the foreman barks out “toss ‘em and bag ‘em!,” an honest reflection of how this horrific practice is carried out. It’s hard to imagine an industry more wasteful or cruel than the shark fin trade, in which these amazing animals are caught for only one small part of their anatomy. After the fin is cut off, the shark is tossed out of the boat to slowly bleed to death as it sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Despite protests, the trade is so widespread that last year over one hundred million sharks were killed in this way (that’s over eleven thousand an hour). Number of humans killed by sharks? 12. The shark dealer in Sharknado enunciates what might well count as the film’s hidden moral: “You don’t have to be afraid of the sharks. They are the ones who should be afraid of us.” You won’t hear this on Shark Week.
Sometimes the only reliable measure of the absurdity of our times comes from absurd films. This is a quality that the earliest spin-offs of Jaws had in abundance. Piranha (1978) is about a military-testing operation gone horribly wrong, when a super-breed of killer fish designed for use against the North Vietnamese is set loose in domestic waters. Barracuda (1978) and Prophecy (1979) are about animals made into monsters by toxic chemical being dumped in the water. Tentacles (1978) is about a giant octopus driven to a killer rampage by intrusive underwater experiments carried out by a local developer; one of the characters describes the eight-armed antagonist in terms applicable to all these silly but socially-conscious B-movies: “It’s an animal, disturbed by man’s stupidity.” Not a bad tag-line for the Sharknado sequel.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.